URL Titles

// // December 02nd 2011 // SEO

The other day I noticed something strange happening. Google was using my URL as the Title instead of my own Title tag.

Not Provided Keyword Google Search

Upon seeing this I kind of freaked out and immediately went to check the Title settings on this post. Everything was in order but I was using the original ‘Stop Whining About (Not Provided)’ Title tag.

At the time I was not the first result for this query. But I changed the Title to ‘Not Provided Keyword In Google Analytics‘ and a day or so later I bounced up to number one for this term. The URL as Title still remains though, which is pretty annoying.

URL Titles

So I started to poke around looking for other examples of this URL as Title behavior. It didn’t take me long to find one.

Cut Up Learning Google Search Result

I checked to make sure I hadn’t botched the Title and found , again, that everything was in order. The Title I had for the post was ‘Is Information Overload Really a Problem?‘ But here’s the thing, I can get that Title to display on a search result.

Information Overload Not a Problem Google Search Result

That’s the same post but I used the search term ‘information overload not a problem’ instead. So what’s going on here?

Google Title Match

Google wants to match the Title of a result to the query when it believes the content of that result is relevant to the query. So if someone is actually searching for ‘cut up learning’ Google has determined that my post is highly relevant. However they replace my Title, which has none of those keywords in it, with my URL which actually does.

Here’s another example.

Influence Metric Google Search Result

My Title tag does not include the word ‘metric’ so Google decides to use my URL for the Title instead. Again, I can get my Title to display using a different query.

Titles Matter

If you haven’t figured it out yet, Titles matter … a lot. So much so that when Google wants to return a result it will change the Title to better match the query. The reason for this is simple. Users scan for and assign higher relevance to Titles that include their query.

Just between you and me, I believe that exact match query Titles are perhaps the most underrated SEO tactic. I’ve actually got some research to back that up which I’m hoping I might get to share in the future.

Can’t Google Parse URLs?

While I appreciate that Google is trying to do me a solid here and get my post in front of the ‘right’ queries, it would be nice if they could parse the URL and make it readable.

So cut-up-learning would become ‘Cut up learning’ or ‘Cut Up Learning’ if they used title casing. This would certainly be a better experience for users who are quickly scanning search results. Playing my own devil’s advocate here, the odd URL as Title could actually break the visual flow and create more emphasis but … I doubt it.

How about it Google, can we render the URL as Titles so they’re a bit more readable?

Using URL Titles

At this point you might be interested or outraged depending on your perspective, but what can you do with this newly acquired information?

First off, you should look at the keyword clusters for your popular content. What you’re looking for are terms that aren’t in your Title but might be in your URL. Based on what you find you can then change your Title so that it is capturing a greater breadth of matching queries.

The other interesting idea is to use this as a dual targeting tactic. You can deliberately target one keyword term or modifier in the Title and another in the URL. Then watch to see which one drives more traffic and adjust accordingly (or not if you’re happy with things the way they are.)

At the end of the day when you see this URL as Title behavior Google is telling you, clearly, that it wants to return your content for that query. So pretend Google is EF Hutton and listen … closely.

TL;DR

Google is replacing Titles with the URL when the URL delivers more relevance based on the user query. This URL as Title behavior reveals just how important Titles are to users and, by extension, to SEO.

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Comments About URL Titles

// 24 comments so far.

  1. Anthony D. Nelson // December 02nd 2011

    Kind of interesting how this allows you to potentially target two different keyword phrases. One with the title and one with the URL. Probably wouldn’t be effective for highly competitive terms, but definitely an option for other keywords.

  2. Micah // December 02nd 2011

    If I’ve ever seen this I’ve just thought “Check out that joker who put his filename in his title tag!” Clearly that isn’t the reaction of most searchers, but it does feel busted. Like you said, if they are going to do this, it needs a little more attention.

  3. Rob woods // December 02nd 2011

    If anyone doesn’t think titles matter that much. I have what is admittedly a very low volume niche blog I use as a hobby and for testing. I went through and made a concerted effort to clean up the titles, some of which were written by a non-SEO. Within 2 days, organic traffic was up 250%. The sample size started small, but it reaffirmed to me that the basic building blocks of SEO still matter, a lot.

  4. AJ Kohn // December 02nd 2011

    Exactly Anthony. You could actually purposefully try to trip this type of behavior. Like you say, probably not good for highly competitive terms but an interesting idea for mid and long-tail terms.

  5. AJ Kohn // December 02nd 2011

    Yes Micah, that’s the problem, it makes the site look foolish. So in Google’s attempt to promote your site they wind up making you look a bit daft. I don’t really mind the practice but the implementation should be better.

  6. AJ Kohn // December 02nd 2011

    Absolutely Rob. Going back and cleaning up Titles can be amazingly effective. I actually think it’s something that should be placed in every SEO maintenance plan.

  7. Jose U // December 02nd 2011

    Well this is interesting.

    I still need a bit of time to digest this, but my first reaction is “Google, don’t mess with my crafted titles!” I get the point that users tend to click more on their matched query, but that’s what the listing description or snippets are for.

    Re-writing titles to match searched queries seems like a bit of an overkill.

    Thanks for posting!

  8. AJ Kohn // December 02nd 2011

    Thanks for your comment Jose and I think a lot of people would agree with your sentiment.

    Google has been over-writing Titles for a couple of years now. At first they did it when a site had duplicate Titles or no Title at all. I don’t think anyone has a problem with that.

    But they’ve been progressively experimenting with constructing their own Titles and over-writing yours when they think they know better. I thought their first attempts were pretty lousy but they’ve been getting better. To be fair, they still don’t do it that often.

    In this instance they really believe that they’re helping because a Title that doesn’t contain a keyword from the query … is far less likely to get clicked. I used to believe that the description or snippet would suffice in delivering context but I’ve come to believe that most people don’t really read them, and only do after fixing on a result based on a scan of Titles.

    It is a slippery slope though isn’t it? And I’m sure larger brands would throw a fit on this lack of control.

  9. Colin // December 02nd 2011

    Very interesting observation. First I was going to ask if they were replicable by everyone (ie were you in an experiment group), but I checked and could replicate it.

    Perhaps it is something to do with the title not being relevant enough to the topic of the content? Google has been known to replace titles that are for example a list of keywords with commas.

  10. AJ Kohn // December 02nd 2011

    Colin,

    Thanks for the comment and for doing a bit of due diligence. I’m curious, did you replicate it with my own examples or find other examples?

    You’re right, Google has been known to replace Titles that they felt were sub-par. This, I believe, is a bit different. For example, the ‘influence metric’ example is only displayed as a URL when you use the keyword ‘metric’. But if you search for ‘influence numbers’ you’ll find my Title intact on page two of results. The topic is essentially same but the query syntax is different.

    So I’m theorizing that this is a real effort to match the title with the query. I think it makes some sense given how Google bolds query terms already. But I’d love for others to find more examples to see if there’s more to it.

  11. Brian Flores - SEO Specialist // December 02nd 2011

    AJ, if I hadn’t seen your post today, I would have been completely in the dark about what Google is doing with URLs as title tags. Thanks for bringing this information to my attention.

  12. AJ Kohn // December 02nd 2011

    Thanks for the comment Brian. I’m glad it was useful and please let me know if you run into any other examples of URLs as Titles.

  13. Arsen Rabinovich // December 02nd 2011

    Good Catch! Are we sure this is not one of those “Glitches”?

    If it is not…. man ohh man am I going to have fun with some of our testing web properties tonight ;)

  14. AJ Kohn // December 02nd 2011

    Arsen,

    I don’t think it is a glitch since it seems to be … intelligent. It only shows a URL as Title in certain circumstances. I did change a small setting on Feedburner to ensure email delivery used the post title as the subject. But I discarded that as a cause of this issue. However, I’d like to find other instances from other sites to confirm that this isn’t a glitch or something site specific.

  15. Colin // December 03rd 2011

    Hi AJ,

    It was via searching for the examples you used:

    [not provided keyword]

    This gives me “not-provided-keyword-in-google-analytics – Blind Five Year Old”

    [cut up learning]

    > this seems to give me a proper title “Cut Up Learning – Blind Five Year Old”

    [influence metric]

    > “google-influence-metric – Blind Five Year Old”

    So does seem to happen frequently.

    Interesting reading what might cause it.

    Might not do any harm to submit a thread in the Google Webmaster Tools forum, if it is a glitch it may well get investigated. It isn’t something I have spotted before but I will certainly look out for it cropping up in searches.

    Cheers
    Colin

  16. Sreejesh // June 27th 2012

    Thats something strange. I’ve seen this first when I searched for “Google Adwords tool” But then I thought it happened just for me. Thats a glitch yeah

  17. Haroun Kola // June 27th 2012

    Thanks for this post. There’s lots to consider here, and goes to emphasize the importance of the Title tag.

  18. Jon // July 04th 2012

    Hi,

    I have just seen this on my site. But, the URL is the same as the title (I use WordPress and they are always the same unless you manually alter things). Here is a screenshot (the goo.gl link directs to a screenshot hosted on Google image servers): http://goo.gl/pq48y

    I have Google Alerts set up to tell me when my company is mentioned, this is how I found out about it.

    Does it resolve by itself in time or stay like that forever?

  19. Jake // June 05th 2013

    I think it’s complete bullcrap that google sometimes re-writes titles.

    Explain to me how google is supposed to be able to better describe the contents of your page to your visitors than you can yourself?

    Anyways, It’s incredible what better titles can do for your traffic and SEO.

  20. Assistir // June 14th 2013

    Since I run almost all of my websites on wordpress I use SEO plugins to force re-write titles. I find that if you keep them short and either an exact match to your keyword or very close, google rarely re-writes them.

    Problem with that though is that it may be overoptimizing and might be penalized, not sure yet.

  21. Dana Tan // March 12th 2014

    Hi AJ,
    Excellent post. While this information is now a couple of years old, I just noticed this exact same phenomenon happening on my most recent blog post for CCI Solutions. Some observations that lead me to believe this could possibly be resulting from a quirk or idosyncracy of Yoast for SEO combined with WordPress:

    1. This post appeared in Google for my target term with my title intact until I added it to the post “Archive” category.
    2. Now, it appears in roughly the same position in the SERPs, for the same term, but now Google is referencing the URL as the title, but also linking to the post in the blog Archive category, not on the blog homepage (where it still appears as the top post).

    Do you think it’s possible that it’s the interaction between Googlebot and WordPress when Yoast for SEO is in use that could be causing this?

    I ask because I would think that in the two years that have passed since your original post, if Google found that URLs were being used as titles, they would definitely have figured out how to parse those to make them more appealing by now. Just a hunch? Might just be a crazy thought, don’t know….I wonder if there might be a way to test it?

  22. AJ Kohn // March 12th 2014

    Thanks Dana,

    I no longer see this problem myself and it looks like Google figured out what was going on and has now done what you’ve proposed and begun to parse the URL and transform them into real titles. Or they’re doing it in another way.

    I don’t use Yoast SEO (though I know it’s good) so I can’t speak to whether it could be something in that configuration. The sense I get is that it’s a bug that will get fixed by Google at some point because URL titles are clearly not good for the user.

    Sorry I can be of more assistance.

  23. Dana Tan // March 13th 2014

    Thanks AJ. I thought maybe I had been imagining things so today I tried it again. Here is a screenshot of the SERP listing showing Google using the URL from my post instead of the title: http://imgur.com/txMwhWY This is from a fairly new post (within the last month) that actually was displaying with the proper title until the last week or so. It seems Google hasn’t quite fixed this yet.

    I did as you suggested and went in and adjusted my title to match the URL to see if, when Google recrawls, it will at least display the title as a headline instead of the url with dashes in between every word. We’ll see.

    In the meantime, I am going to test some other posts to see if either Yoast, or the fact that I am adding posts to the WP archive, or a combination of the two is causing this anomaly. I’ll report back if I find anything consistent or definitive.

  24. Bruno // August 01st 2014

    Excellent post. I came across it when searching for a similar situation with my site. I have recently noticed that for some of my pages Google was rewriting my titles (using title text not taken from ). I’m still not certain where Google is taking the text from, but I’m pretty sure it is from my H1 tags. Anyone experiencing something similar? I think the cause may be what one of your readers posted:

    “Google has been known to replace titles that are for example a list of keywords with commas.” by Colin.

    I think my current titles may be either using terms that are too generic, followed by too many words and commas. But I think it may not be limited to that. I’ve also heard about Google using text from previous titles and text from sitemaps as well. I may have to rewrite my titles in the form of complete sentences instead. Thanks again for the post.

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